Goddy Uwazuruike, a lawyer and former President of Aka Ikenga has condemned the proposed social media and hate speech bills saying they are replicates of military era decrees that denied Nigerians of their freedom of speech and expression. He also spoke on needed judicial and criminal justice reforms and other national issues.
What do you think of the proposed Social Media bill and Hate Speech Bill?
The Hate Speech Bill is the handiwork of a meddlesome Senator who knows nothing about what the law says; he is still suffering from the hangover of the military era when whatever the Head of State says goes and there is no room for contrary opinion. That someone says something that you don’t like does not make what was said a crime. I have read that bill and I wonder whether the sponsor ever associates with intelligent men and women.
Before 2015, we were able to call in on political talks on radio and television to air our views but as soon as President Muhammadu Buhari took over, all the television and radio stations cut-off phone-in programmes except if they are on sports and health; that is taking away our freedom of speech and expression which is guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended).
Can you imagine a Senator saying that if you say something that leads to a riot or death that you should be put to death? He does not know anything about the individuality of the average Nigerian. I will give an example; when the Oba of Lagos said the Igbo should be thrown into the Lagoon if they don’t vote for a particular candidate, I issued a statement then as President of Aka Ikenga calling on the international community to intervene. I don’t know whether these senators from Niger State have noticed the new trend in Cross River, Kaduna and Zamfara states where if you criticise a governor, you will be arrested. In Cross River State, a journalist is facing trial, in Kaduna State, a lecturer was arrested and I understand that after he was granted bail, he was sacked. In Niger State, some people were arrested under some nebulous law that you can’t criticise a civil servant. Is this the destination, we were promised in 2015? Definitely not. I think we are retrogressing; this senator copied word for word the law in a Muslim country and wants it to be implemented in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Nigeria? When Buhari took over in 1983, he did everything to curtail our freedom of speech and expression under Decree 4. Remember what he said in that Decree 4, whether true or false, as long as the government is embarrassed, that you are guilty. Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor paid the price, what they published was true, yet they went to jail. Nearly 40 years later somebody is asking us to go back to that era, that is stupid.
Where do you draw the line when one man’s freedom of speech and expression threatens another’s freedom to right of privacy and dignity of human person for example?
The constitution has taken care of all those things. The freedom of expression is the bulwark of any democracy. Where your freedom ends, mine begins, if you cross the limit, it can be called libel or the general name of defamation; if it is oral, it will be called slander. Defamation is not a crime. They have chosen to forget what the Appeal Court said in Author Nwankwo vs the State that the law of defamation is a relic of colonialism and has no place in Nigeria. That judgement has not been overruled. I advise anybody who is charged before any court to cite that judgement.
From the time we gained independence from Britain, people were free to express themselves. It was when the military came, and the worst of the military regimes were Gen. Sani Abacha and Gen. Buhari who curtailed our freedom of expression. It is unfortunate that in the year of our Lord 2019, a senator wants to revive the era when we had no freedom of expression.
Talking about courts, the judiciary used to be seen as the last hope of the common man, unfortunately, of late, some judicial officers including members of the Bench and Bar have been accused of aiding and abetting perversion of justice. What do you say?
Our judiciary is on trial. It is on trial because the executive simply went and grabbed the head of the judiciary and in dealing with him, they succeeded in emasculating the judiciary. I hope and pray that the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mohammed Tanko understands what is going on because he is standing on the threshold of history. Let me put it this way, it takes many years for the Supreme Court to hear a case; the Court of Appeal has followed suit, mere motions in the Court of Appeal can take four years. They don’t need the legislature to do something about this. There is what we call Chief Judge’s Rule, otherwise called Practise Directions; it also applies in the High Courts; it can be applied against some of these blockades because justice delayed is justice denied. We have seen some judges make firm decisions; we are moving, but more needs to be done. Situations where a judge takes a judgement that is uncomplimentary to any of the security agencies and there is apprehension that he will come under attack is wrong. Judges must be free to take decisions without fear or favour. As it is today, the judiciary is in trouble.
The legislature has oversight…
(Cuts in) The legislature too is emasculated, this is why they received the appropriation bill and rushed it. We were used to seeing the heads of different ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) coming to defend their budget proposals, but there is nothing like that now; we are used to hearing about the performance of the budget, there is also nothing like that now, all we know now is that the budget has been passed. Even a bigger one coming up is the request of the president for approval to borrow $30 billion when you are using about 60 per cent of the current budget to service the existing loan? I don’t know what is going on, this is why freedom of expression is essential to a democracy.
A Kaduna High Court has ordered that the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) be remanded in Kaduna prison and this is after he had been earlier granted bail and the government refused to release him…
(Cuts in) It is contradictory; I will use this to address the issue of Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky frontally. It is four years now since Zakzaky and his wife were arrested. In the language of the army, Zakzaky and his followers obstructed the movement of the Chief of Army Staff (COAS). Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El’Rufai instituted a panel which gave a horrible number of lives lost in that incident, up till now nobody has told us how the families of those that died in that incident were compensated. As far as I am concerned, our judiciary is being messed up with the trial of Zakzaky. After he had been initially granted bail, now you are taking him to the correctional centre. It is just one step forward, many steps backwards.
There is ongoing agitation for the separation of the office of the AGF and that of Minister for Justice. What do you say?
I was a delegate to the National Conference in 2014 and that was our recommendation, that the AGF should be an attorney general of the people who cannot be sacked by the president. The Minister of Justice will remain as a member of the cabinet answerable to the president but not the AGF. As we have it today, we don’t even have a Minister of Justice. As far as I’m concerned, the current AGF is a Buharist, anything the president says or does is fine. In 1979, Shehu Shagari appointed an AGF who warned even his colleagues that he will not hesitate to go after them; that he has a job to do. Fast forward to today, can the AGF stand up and tell the president that the things he is doing is wrong? He cannot.
What should be the respective roles of the two offices if separated?
The AGF should defend the people against all cases, his office should be separate and his mode of appointment will not be like that of ministers and he should be under a special confirmation by the Senate, not the usual take a bow and go for the ministers. The AGF should also be completely independent. Funds to the office should be on a first line charge and not controlled by the president. For the Minister of Justice, he is there to do administrative work for the government. He goes through proposed bill and advises the president, but the AGF works for the people directly.
President Buhari wants special courts for corruption, what do you think?
It is all motion and no movement. We have enough courts. What I will say is that vacancy for judges should be filled. The Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and all other courts have a certain number of judges. If the required number of judges are appointed, the cases will be shared among all the judges and the pending cases will be decongested. All courts are anti-corruption courts, if the Chief Justice of Nigeria wants more courts, he knows what to do. It is just executive meddlesomeness. They should shelve the idea.
The last governorship election in Kogi and Bayelsa States have again raised questions on credibility of elections in Nigeria. INEC even said politicians have found a way around the smart card readers. What are your fears for future elections?
One lesson I learnt from the Supreme Court judgement on Atiku vs Buhari regarding the 2019 Presidential election is you can do whatever you can do to win an election; anybody challenging you should go and prove it. In other words, anybody challenging the Kogi and Bayelsa election must show that there was violence. Those elections were do or die, especially that of Kogi. The Bayelsa election has a slight difference because you have a former President Goodluck Jonathan from that place and Governor Seriake Dickson did not carry him along whereas the opposition did everything possible to carry him along. From what I understood, there is rotation of power in Bayelsa State which Governor Dickson ignored and he paid for it.
There is a determination to stop the south East by all means. Everybody is saying that whichever way it goes that it is alright; that is not democracy. In this country, power must go around. At independence, there were three regions, the Northern, Western and Eastern regions. At the time of independence, it was agreed that power will go around but today one region is being made to look like a beggar. The West had had power and wants to come back, the North has power and is saying we will determine when we will leave but in the meantime we, the North will retain power and that is sad, but I can assure you the South East will not take it lightly. All the Igbo must rise, we are not saying that an Igbo man should be among those to contest for president, no. Afterall, in 1999, Nigerians voted for Olusegun Obasanjo and Olu Falae both from the South West; in 2007, they voted for Buhari and Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, both Fulani from the same state. The same rule should apply in 2023.
Apart from the need for political parties fielding candidates from the South East, what must the zone do as a people to make the quest realisable?
On our own, we must make sure that only people who have the capacity to represent the country Nigeria and not the Igbo come out. There is no way a man whose vision is limited to just the South East can become president. To lead, you must have a national outlook and we have many of them. These are people who if you investigate, you won’t find any fault.